From gold to Pastoral labourers

Ringbarking camp, near Deniliquin

The first Chinese people to arrive in Australia in any number came as indentured labourers in 1847, and worked primarily on pastoral properties. It was not until the 1851 gold rushes, that they arrived in Australia in any significant number. Their main destinations in the Riverina district were the Adelong and Black Range goldfields (near Albury).

With the waning of the gold rushes, an increasing number of men sought employment in pastoral occupations and as market gardeners. The Chinese camps in the main towns became a vital source of labour for pastoralists, who used Chinese contractors to hire large groups to ringbark trees and clear their properties of timber. They were also used for many other tasks on the pastoral stations, such as fencing, dam construction, wool washing, market gardening, shearing and cooking. The Chinese were not a servile labour force, sometimes strongly contesting the contracts, and refusing to work at the prevailing rates.

Their economic value was undisputed. In 1887 a Melbourne Argus correspondent reported on the large numbers of Chinese men engaged in wool scouring in the Hay district, and was told ‘The Chinamen do the work better; they neither waste the wool nor damage the plant; there is in fact no bother with them at all; they do their work faithfully and well and earn higher wages than the ordinary white workmen’. In 1890, a Sydney Morning Herald correspondent stated that nearly all the pastoralists to whom he had spoken had the same opinion of the Chinese people. It was not so much that their labour was cheaper, for in many cases they received the same wages or even more than the Europeans; it was because they were steadier and more reliable. He stated that as cooks and gardeners they were invaluable and produced nearly all the vegetables grown in the bush. They also worked as rabbiters, and were willing to do nearly all the rough work on the stations. One squatter criticised the European labourers, saying that

They can’t do it at the price, and if they take a contract they only do so to get a draw of rations and then clear out and take the tools with them. It’s quite different with the Chinese; we only deal with the head man and whatever price he accepts the work is always done, even when they can’t earn tucker at it, and then they don’t get drunk, and kick up rows.

Market gardeners

Charlie Wong Hing at Clear Springs

The economic value of the Chinese as market gardeners was equally appreciated, not only on the pastoral stations, but also in the towns. Market gardening and fruit growing could be highly profitable, for it was relatively inexpensive to set up a garden, often on leased land, and in partnership with other Chinese men. It was very labour intensive work, and the methods and technology differed little from those used in China for centuries past.

Market gardening was a major activity in Deniliquin from the early 1860s, perhaps more so than in any other Riverina town, for a favourable climate and adequate water meant that three crops could be harvested each year. Chinese market gardening soon spread to other towns including Hay, Hillston, Booligal, Wagga and Junee. At Wagga, most market gardens were in the lagoon area known as North Wagga Island, although some gardens were located at the Chinese camp in Fitzmaurice Street.

Because the Chinese market gardens were almost always located near the waterways they were very susceptible to flooding, with consequently heavy losses of crops. In 1950 King Fan, a leading Chinese market gardener in Narrandera, remarked that the flood was the highest he had ever seen in the town. He expected to be a heavy loser, as the whole of his vegetable garden would be ruined, and expected other market gardeners along the river to also suffer.


Farmers, Sampling tobacco, Tumut, NLA

In the mid 1870s the Chinese began cultivating tobacco and maize, focusing their efforts on the Tumut and Gundagai areas. The Chinese were tenant farmers, renting the land from European land owners and paying an annual or quarterly rent, usually at a higher rate than most Europeans. They were financed by Tumut-based entrepreneurs, of whom the main one was Dang Ah Chee, who helped set up their farms and insure their crops, taking a share of the crop as payment, and bargaining with the landowners and the tobacco buyers on their behalf.

The growth of the industry was rapid. By the late 1880s production was entirely in the hands of the Chinese who, unlike white farmers, had the patience required for the successful production of this wellpaying, but delicate crop.

Although many Chinese were forced out of tobacco farming during the Depression of the 1890s,  the industry revived in the early 1900s courtesy of the British American Tobacco company, technology and a guaranteed price. Tumut resident Jack Bridle recalled that the Wermatong owners at Tumut Plains were very happy with the Chinese as tenants because they were ‘industrious, honest, and above all, because of their system of banking with their local storekeeper their rents were always paid on time’.

Some Chinese men were also wheat and sheep farmers. One of the more notable examples was James Fong, a selector and storekeeper at Broken Dam near Ariah Park, and William Quong who bought a wheat farm in 1916 at Grong Grong and later purchased several other farms in the area.

Storekeepers and other businesses

Many Chinese were storekeepers. Some stores were located in the Chinese camps and others in the main town area. They were mostly general in nature, selling Chinese and European goods, and advertising regularly in the local newspapers, often at lower prices than

European competitors. Some also bought and sold skins and hides. Other Chinese were herbalists, doctors, blacksmiths, carpenters and furniture makers. The general stores were multifunctional, and played an important role in housing newly arrived countrymen, providing them with board and lodgings, as well as information, assistance and protection. They also helped them with  the purchase of travel documents such as shipping tickets and applications for Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test (CEDTs), and with translation, letter writing, banking and the remittance of money to China or elsewhere. In these processes the linkages with the city merchants were critical, particularly if reinforced by district and fraternal linkages. They also served as important meeting places for Chinese labourers and farmers working in the bush.

Some of the Chinese merchants and storekeepers in the Riverina were very successful, and where strong family and clan linkages existed, almost dynastic. One such grouping concerned Dang Ah Chee, his brother, Dang Bown Sluey, his cousin Dang Loon, and later Dang Bown Sluey’s son, Quong Wing, all of whom ran Tumut-based businesses. Another very prominent Riverina merchant was James Ah (Wong) Chuey, a wool, skins and hides dealer, commission agent, general storekeeper, contractor and wool scourer. In the early 1900s, his main business was in Junee, but he also had branch stores in Cootamundra, Tumut, Wagga Wagga, Wyalong and Barmedman.

Advertisement Wah’s garage, Junee

Further into the 20th century the Chinese people diversified into many other businesses such as garages, theatres, trucking, dry cleaning, baking and tailoring. One such man was Dang Charles Doon, who with his sons set up a store and wool, skin and tobacco buying business in Tumut, later setting up a dry cleaning business and a trucking company. At Grong Grong the Choy family owned a large number of businesses in the town, opening up a garage and motor vehicle dealership in the 1930s, and later an engineering and steel fabrication business. Another branch of the family ran a garage in Griffith, later opening a dry cleaning business in Narrandera. Tommy Ah Wah at Junee was another garage operator. Originally a skin, hides and wool dealer and market gardener, he opened a garage and service station, running dealerships for cars, trucks, tractors and various types of machinery. At Cootamundra, William Ah Tie opened a bakery in 1885, and his son, Henry, ran a tailor shop from 1908 to 1958.

A number of Chinese people opened restaurants in the early post war years. One such restaurateur was George Young, who opened the Dragon Restaurant in Wagga in 1952, and later the Cathay Restaurant in Albury.